Tell Me A ‘History’: Oral History and its Role in the Primary School Classroom

Gosia Brown, one of the Head Teachers at St. Francis Melton Catholic Primary School in Leicestershire, England, discusses the ways that oral history has become a part of its curriculum, a subset of a larger project about the school’s heritage and history within the community.

As humans we are all gripped and drawn in by stories and the hush of storytime is a moment in the school day that reaffirms the power of a story and the way in which children can be transported to another time or place. So, what better way to engage our learners than through the voices of people from across the decades, from different times and places, and from a variety of cultures and backgrounds?

At St Francis Catholic Primary School, the stories of past pupils, staff, parents and grandparents are at the centre of a five-year project exploring the heritage of the school’s existence in Melton Mowbray, a project which has been the catalyst for developing the use of oral history across our curriculum. At the start of the project every child in the school was invited to gather a memory about the school or the town from a family member. The children were excited that they were able to engage in this research directly, bringing an immediacy to the historical enquiry that would not have been achievable in any other way. It was a great springboard for our project too, as it engaged families and the wider community who could then post photos and memories to the school’s Heritage Facebook page, which now has over 400 followers.

After an excellent lesson from Colin Hyde on interviewing, an oral historian from the University of Leicester, children from years 5 and 6 prepared to carry out in-depth interviews at a memory sharing morning. The children were fascinated to learn about how the Franciscan Sisters who still reside in the Convent House next door to the school began their ministry in London, serving the community by visiting the poor and housebound. The Sisters came to Melton Mowbray and started a school in the center of the town with just 4 pupils in 1900, before moving to the Convent House in 1904 and then eventually building the school on its present site in 1957. Through listening to the first hand accounts, the children began to make connections between the stories and key concepts they were learning about in History. They quickly recognized that school life was very different in the past and understood the impact of world events as the Sisters described how during World War II evacuees arrived on the doorstep with their gas masks in hand to live in safety at the Convent house.

As an educator, I recognised how the event was something rather special as it brought together so many aspects of the whole curriculum. Not only were the children building on their historical knowledge and understanding, they were also using numerous other skills such as interviewing and recording, and the simple but important skill of starting and maintaining a conversation with someone new. The intergenerational element was a joy to watch as the children and adults, tentatively at first, began to converse with one another. It was surprisingly accessible even for those pupils for whom spoken language is a difficulty; these pupils had the chance to rehearse their questions with a friend beforehand so that they had greater confidence when faced with their visitor, and once they started there was no stopping them!

Teachers quickly saw the potential to extend the work on the Heritage Project into their lessons in the classroom, and not just in History. Not much is needed in the way of cost as there is so much available online through the Oral History Society, the British Library, and BBC School Radio, to name just a few places where oral recordings on a range of subjects can be accessed. In Personal and Social Education lessons for example, we have listened to the voices of those with disabilities, leading our pupils to develop positive attitudes towards others. The discussions that follow listening to such recordings are of a truly high quality as a result of pupils having their opinions and viewpoints challenged through listening to the life experiences of others. As a Catholic school, we made the link between oral history and the oral traditions of the Bible as well as listening to the stories of those from other faiths. And of course, just like any good story, oral histories can be used as a stimulus for creative subjects such as art, D&T (design and technology) and creative writing.

We continue to develop our work using Oral History to enhance our curriculum offer and we are excited as senior leaders to see how much it has engaged our staff and pupils. As we adapt and develop our approaches to suit our developing curriculum, we are confident that the whole community will benefit from our work, not least the children in whom we have seen it further inspire a love of learning. The next stage in our project is a school play about the history of the school. This is rather an ambitious aspect of the project, where we hope to use multimedia to include voice recordings as a way of engaging our audience directly with the interviews. But that’s another story, which we hope will continue to bring oral history further to the forefront in Primary education.

Gosia Brown is Co- Head Teacher at St Francis Catholic Primary School in Melton Mowbray and co-ordinates the Lottery funded Heritage Project, ‘Memories of Saint Francis Catholic Primary School- 60 years in Melton Mowbray’. She has developed a free resource guide for educators who are interested in pursuing Oral History in the classroom. 

Images of St. Francis Catholic Primary School’s memory sharing event are courtesy of Rafal Orzech.